Lia Hills is a poet, novelist and translator. Her debut novel, The Beginner’s Guide to Living, was released to critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Victorian, Queensland and Western Australian Premiers’ Literary Awards and the New Zealand Post Book Awards. It has been translated into several languages. Other works include her award-winning poetry collection the possibility of flight and her translation of Marie Darrieussecq’s acclaimed novel, Tom is Dead. She lives with her family in the hills outside Melbourne.
Let’s be totally upfront. I selected this book purely on the basis of the front cover. Gorgeous colours, aren’t they?
Saul is a thirty something young man working in Sydney after several years of adventuring in different parts of the world with his childhood friend, Jed. Saul receives a telephone call advising that Jed has committed suicide.
Instead of returning to their birthplace, Tasmania, for the funeral, Saul jumps in his car and drives to Melbourne. It is a long, boring drive, and the quotes from the writings of Australian novelist, Patrick White, tend to make me apprehensive of where this is all heading.
Melbourne has a shared history for Jed and Saul, and in the room in the boarding house where Jed had been staying, Saul finds a photo of a young Aboriginal woman tucked inside a poetry book. None the wiser on why Jed has resorted to such a final solution, Saul continues his road trip through to Adelaide, then shooting north through to Coober Pedy in search of the woman in the photograph.
This is one long drive interspersed with petrol stops, pit stops in country towns for a cold beer, and toilet breaks behind trees.
I was warned by all those literary quotes, wasn’t I?
Then it hit me: Australia is a huge country with long stretches of nothingness, and it is true that road trips in rural areas do become a series of petrol/food/ personal stops where along the way the traveller focuses on the constant change of scenery. By the time Saul arrives in the underground, opal mining town of Coober Pedy, we are thrilled when he meets up with a lass of German extraction. The human interaction picks up the pace of the storyline and all that descriptive prose, which is beautifully done but wordy, eases off.
Together they travel further north to Australia’s Centre, Alice Springs, stopping with an indigineous acquaintance along the way, where he is able to track down the whereabouts of Jed’s friend in the photo.
Saul gets permission from the traditional land owners to enter the Western Desert where he finally meets up with the woman, Nara. After some days living within the community, and living as they do, he finally learns a secret about Jed.
The long, solo drive to Adelaide was hard work, though the rhythm of the book changed for me once we had some human interaction. Life within an aboriginal community was fascinating and I enjoyed an insight into their spirituality. However, I’m a bit amazed after having read so many reviews that many readers said they benefited reading about the living conditions of aboriginals in rural settlements. Doesn’t anybody read a newspaper anymore?
The Crying Hills is more a painting of a series of beautiful yet harsh landscapes than a novel.
The content, with all its grief, does not make it a fun book to read.
And as for the big secret? Enough to kill yourself over? This did not sit well with me either, though I guess suicide is never a comfortable topic.